A lot more than anyone should, I fixate on Paris. It’s not just that we got engaged there, returned a little over a year later just because we missed it and scheme to find a way to expat ourselves there one day or at least for a couple years; no, that would be too obvious. My obsession lies with the fact that, as with all things we pine for, the grass just seems so much greener over there, from the Velib bikes to the old buildings which are never crushed to make room for fugly glass and concrete monoliths, and do I even need to get started about the respect given to artisan crafts from pastry to bread baking?
Thus, it was with great interest that I came across an article written by Dorie Greenspan for Bon Appetit a couple years ago about yet another thing that makes French women so fabulous–aside from the fact that they’re always perfectly dressed without looking like they’re trying too hard and can tie a scarf with their eyes closed while I do mine in front of a mirror and it still looks awkward. It’s because they say things like “Why’d do you do it?”â€””it” being baking a rich chocolate cake topped with raspberries and chocolate ganacheâ€””I mean, it’s great, but cakes like this are the reason pastry shops were invented.”
As someone who delights in making elaborate cakes, but also advises people to only choose one plat de resistance when entertaining, this captivated me. French women, says Dorie, keep it simple when they bake at home, and they’re not afraid to use bits and pieces purchased elsewhere–a tart dough, some prepared fruit, almond paste–to get the job done.
For example, it is not uncommon for French women to use canned pears in this Pear and Almond Tart, or a ready to be rolled sweet pastry dough. And boy, I could have used one of those doughs this Sunday, when the ground-almond version I used gave me so much trouble–dry, crumbly, loathsome–that after four failed attempts to roll it out, I threw it in the garbage and made a new one. However, in my trial but mostly error, I decided that this new one, the one I have posted here today, will be the only one I ever used because, get this, it barely shrunk at all. This is a first in the smitten kitchen, but I hope not the last.
Ironically enough, this is quite close to a recipe that shrunk mercilessly on me a few months ago, leading me to believe that it is the technique, not recipe that saved the day. And what is this technique, pray tell? It is fully freezing the dough and lining it tightly with foil before baking the shell.
I didn’t trust the quality of readily-available canned pears in the store–Chelsea, you are no Paris, though I know you try–but fortunately, poaching the pears was little trouble. Once I had the shell baked, the pears poached and the filling whirled in the food processor, I ran out of time to bake the tart (typical) and packed all three parts up to go to my parents for dinner. Sure, my mother already had a dessert planned but you see, I had to make this tart for my mom. You see, she is a marzipan fanatic and if you have a marzipan fanatic in your life, you need to introduce them to frangipane, stat. Made with ground almonds, butter, an egg and a splash of extract or brandy, they’ll think they’ve died and gone to heaven.
Which, really, is a perfect time to ask them to sponsor your next trip to Paris.
Best Sweet Tart Crust
Adapted from a few Dorie Greenspan recipes
Makes enough for one 9-inch tart crust
1 1/2 cups (190 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (60 grams) confectioner’s sugar
1/4 teaspoon (1 to 2 grams) table salt
1 stick plus 1 tablespoon (9 tablespoons, 4 1/2 ounces or 130 grams) very cold (or frozen) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg yolk
1. Put the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to combine. Scatter the pieces of butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is coarsely cut in — you should have pieces the size of oatmeal flakes and some the size of peas. Stir the yolk, just to break it up, and add it a little at a time, pulsing after each addition. When the egg is in, process in long pulse about 10 seconds each until the dough, which will look granular soon after the egg is added, forms clumps and curds. Just before you reach this stage, the sound of the machine working the dough will change; heads up. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and, very lightly and sparingly, knead the dough just to incorporate any dry ingredients that might have escaped mixing. Chill the dough, wrapped in plastic wrap, for about 2 hours before rolling.*
2. To roll the dough: Butter a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Roll out chilled dough on floured sheet of parchment paper to 12-inch round, lifting and turning dough occasionally to free from paper. Using paper as aid, turn dough into 9-inch-diameter tart pan with removable bottom; peel off paper. Seal any cracks in dough. Trim overhang to 1/2 inch. Fold overhang in, making double-thick sides. Pierce crust all over with fork.
3. Freeze the crust for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer, before baking.
4. To fully bake the crust: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 375°F. Butter the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil (or use nonstick foil) and fit the foil, buttered side down, tightly against the crust. (Since you froze the crust, you can bake it without weights.) Put the tart pan on a baking sheet and bake the crust for 25 minutes.
5. Carefully remove the foil. If the crust has puffed, press it down gently with the back of a spoon (or prick it with the tip of a small knife). Bake the crust about 10 minutes longer, or until it is firm and golden brown, brown being the important word: a pale crust doesn’t have a lot of flavor. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool the crust to room temperature.
Storing: The dough can be wrapped and kept in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 2 months. While the fully baked crust can be packed airtight and frozen for up to 2 months, the flavor will be fresher bake it directly from the freezer, already rolled out–just add about 5 minutes to the baking time.
* Alternate press-in technique: If you want to use the press-in method, you can work with the dough as soon as it’s processed. Just press the dough evenly over the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Don’t be too heavy-handed; press the crust in so that the edges of the pieces cling to one another, but don’t press so hard that the crust loses its crumbly texture.
Pear and Almond Tart
Adapted from Bon Appetit, February 2005
If you’d like to use canned pears halves for this–it is trés French, you see–just drain the canned pears, dry them very well, and carry on.
4 cups (950 ml) water
1 1/4 cups (225 grams) sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons (20 ml) fresh lemon juice
3 medium-size firm but ripe Bosc pears, peeled (each about 7 ounces or 200 grams)
2/3 cup (75 grams) blanched slivered almonds
1 tablespoon (10 grams) all purpose flour
7 tablespoons (90 grams) sugar
6 tablespoons (3 ounces or 85 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon almond extract or 2 teaspoons (10 ml) brandy (optional)
1 sweet tart shell, baked (recipe above)
Powdered sugar (optional)
For pears: Bring 4 cups water, sugar, and lemon juice to boil in large saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add pears. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until pears are very tender, turning occasionally, about 20 minutes. Cool pears in syrup. (Can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)
For almond filling: Finely grind almonds and flour in processor. Mix in 7 tablespoons sugar, then butter and flavorings (if using). Blend until smooth. Mix in egg. Transfer filling to medium bowl. Cover and chill at least 3 hours. (Can be made 2 days ahead. Keep chilled.)
Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Spread almond filling evenly in baked tart crust. Stem pears and cut each in half lengthwise; scoop out cores. Cut each half crosswise into thin slices. Gently press each pear half to fan slices but keep slices tightly overlapped. Slide spatula under pears and arrange atop filling like spokes of wheel with narrow ends in center.
Bake tart until golden and tester inserted into center of filling comes out clean, about 55 minutes. Cool tart in pan on rack. Push pan bottom up, releasing tart from pan. (Can be made 8 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature.) Cut tart into wedges; sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired, and serve.
See also: A summer version — Plum-Almond Tart